Sal Paradise recalls when he first met Dean Moriarty, who came to New York City from Colorado with his new wife Marylou and asked Sal to teach him how to write. Sal was struck by Dean’s mad enthusiasm for life, and the two became friends, as Dean also got to know Sal’s close friend Carlo Marx. Not long after, Dean and Carlo journeyed out west. Sal had an urge to follow them west and get out on the road, so he saved up some money and took a bus to Chicago, heading for his friend Remi Boncoeur in San Francisco. From Chicago, he started hitchhiking west, eating apple pie and ice cream wherever he stopped. As he continued catching buses and hitchhiking, he met a fellow traveler named Eddie and the two started to travel together. Sal gave Eddie a wool shirt when it started raining, and then Eddie left Sal behind when they encountered a farmer’s trailer with only room for one passenger. Sal hitched a ride with a truck that was picking up all sorts of vagrants in its flatbed. When the truck stopped somewhere, Sal bought a bottle of whiskey and shared it with his fellow hitchhikers. He loved the ride, which took him all the way to Cheyenne. He and another passenger from the truck, Montana Slim, went to bars, drank, and met some girls. Slim took off the next day and Sal hitched rides to Denver.
His first night in Denver, Sal stayed with his friend Chad King, unable to find Dean or Carlo. He then moved in with another friend, a writer named Roland Major, and finally heard from Dean and Carlo, who had become close friends and would “communicate with absolute honesty” every day while sitting opposite each other on a bed, high on Benzedrine. Sal learns that Dean is simultaneously seeing Marylou and another woman named Camille. Sal, Dean, and Carlo went out partying together in Denver. Sal got a call from Eddie, who happened to be in Denver, too. He went to a huge party with his friends and then went to Carlo’s house and heard Carlo read some of his poetry. Dean announced that he was set to divorce Marylou and marry Camille. Sal watched as Carlo and Dean sat on Carlo’s bed all night and talked, sharing all their thoughts honestly.
Sal went on a trip with some friends to a nearby mountain town, where they stayed in an abandoned miner’s house, threw a great big party, got drunk, and went all over town causing trouble. When Sal got back to Denver, he had an urge to travel to San Francisco. Before he left, though, Dean fixed him up with a woman named Rita Bettencourt, who Sal slept with. Sal wrote to his aunt for more money and then bought a bus ticket to San Francisco. He said goodbye to all his friends but couldn’t find Dean before he left.
In San Francisco, Sal found Remi Boncoeur’s place (a shack) and climbed in through the window. He met Remi’s woman, Lee Ann. Sal stayed with Remi and Remi had him write a screenplay for Hollywood. Sal eventually decided he needed a job, so Remi set him up with his own job, working as a guard at a nearby barracks that housed construction workers about to go overseas. Sal felt odd in this quasi-policeman role and drank with the rowdy workers he was supposed to be keeping in line. He and Remi were not liked by the more disciplinarian other guards, and when they were on duty by themselves they broke into the barracks cafeteria and stole food. Remi and Lee Ann’s relationship began to deteriorate. Sal accompanied both of them to the horse races, where Remi lost all his money and got angry. He and Lee Ann continued to fight and Lee Ann kicked Remi out of their shack. Remi asked Lee Ann and Sal for one last favor: he wanted them to go to dinner with his stepfather and him, so that his stepfather would think Remi was doing well. Sal and Lee Ann agreed, but the dinner turned out to be a disaster. Sal ran into Roland Major at the restaurant and the two got drunk and embarrassed Remi. The next morning, Sal decided to leave San Francisco. Before going, he climbed up a nearby mountain and looked out over “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent.”
Sal left San Francisco and got on a bus to Los Angeles. On the bus, he sat next to an attractive Mexican woman named Teresa. The two hit it off, and decided to stay in the same hotel room in L.A. In Los Angeles, Sal worried that Teresa might be a hustler, and Teresa ironically also thought that Sal might be a pimp. After they argued and cleared things up, they slept together and stayed together in L.A. for about two weeks. They planned to hitchhike to New York, but ended up deciding to work in rural California to save money for bus tickets instead. Teresa took Sal to her hometown, where he met her brother Rickey, who promised to help Sal make money selling manure to farmers. All Rickey really did, though, was drink. Sal found a job picking cotton and lived with Teresa for a while in a tent. He began to feel that he should return to New York, though, and wrote his aunt for more money, so that he could buy a bus ticket. He said goodbye to Teresa, hitchhiked to L.A., and got on a bus bound for Pittsburgh. On the bus, he “necked all the way to Indianapolis” with a girl. After arriving in Pittsburgh, Sal met an old hobo he called The Ghost of the Susquehanna who was wandering around, saying he was going to “Canady.” Sal says that the Ghost taught him that there was American wilderness in the east as well as the west. Sal hitchhiked to New York, starving hungry and without money. He panhandled for bus fare and finally got back to his aunt’s house in New Jersey.
Sal stayed at home for about a year, attending school on the G.I. bill and finishing his book. He went to visit his brother in Virginia and wrote to Dean to tell him where he’d be. To his surprise, Dean drove up to his brother’s house with Marylou and someone named Ed Dunkel. Dean fills Sal in on his life: he was living with Camille in San Francisco (and had a daughter with her) but felt a sudden urge to journey east. He took off with his friend from work, Ed, and Ed’s girlfriend Galatea. Galatea insisted on being married before she joined the trip, so Ed married her. But, Dean and Ed got fed up with Galatea and ditched her in a random hotel. In Denver, Dean reconnected with Marylou and the two decided to get back together. Dean, Marylou, and Ed then drove all the way to Sal’s brother’s house. Sal went around for a drive with Dean, Marylou, and Ed, and got the urge to go out on the road again. Sal and his friends drove some furniture that needed transporting north from Sal’s brother’s house to his aunt’s place in New Jersey. At his aunt’s house, Sal got a call from a friend named Old Bull Lee in New Orleans, who said that someone named Galatea came to him looking for Ed Dunkel. Sal spoke to Galatea and told her that they’d pick her back up on the way west. Sal also got a call from Camille, looking for Dean. Dean and Sal drove back down to Virginia to get more furniture and to drive Sal’s aunt back to New Jersey. On the way, Dean kept spouting his strange ideas about God, philosophy, and the world. On the way back to New Jersey, Dean got stopped by a policeman and Sal’s aunt had to pay for his speeding ticket.
Around New Year’s Eve, Sal and his friends went out in New York, partying and drinking for a whole weekend. Marylou flirted with Sal and told him that Dean was probably going to go back to Camille, so they should go live together in San Francisco. Sal and Dean went to hear a jazz pianist play, and Dean said that the pianist was God. After the weekend of fun, Sal returned to his aunt’s house and decided to take “one more magnificent trip to the West Coast.” Before he went west, he and his friends stayed at Carlo’s apartment in the city for a while. Carlo warned them that their wandering lives on the road would soon fall apart. One day, Dean asked Sal to sleep with Marylou while he looked on. Marylou agreed, but Sal couldn’t go through with it and told Marylou to wait until they were “lovers in San Francisco.” Dean and Marylou got into a fight that turned physical, and Sal decided it was time to go on the road again.
The group drove south, arriving in DC on the morning of Truman’s second inauguration. Ed sped past a policeman, so they were pulled over and questioned. As they drove further south, they picked up some hitchhikers, and eventually made it to New Orleans, where they found Old Bull Lee’s house. Bull lived with his wife Jane and their two children. Bull and Jane were heavy drug users. Sal and his friends stayed with Bull, going out in New Orleans, drinking, and taking different drugs. Bull shared some of his conspiracy theories about the government with Sal and then had him try a homemade machine called an “orgone accumulator,” that supposedly accumulated orgones, “vibratory atmospheric atoms of the life-principle.” Bull and Sal lost some money at the horse races, neglecting to bet on a horse named Big Pop, whose name reminded Sal of his father. Sal decided it was time to leave New Orleans, so he drove off toward California with Dean and Marylou. They stopped at a grocery store where Sal stole some food for the trip. They drove across Texas, and at one point Dean stopped, took off all his clothes, and ran around outside. He encouraged Sal and Marylou to lose their clothes, and the three drove for a while all three naked in the front seat. After they stopped in El Paso, Marylou told Sal that she was sure Dean was going to leave her. The group drove to Tucson, where Sal had a friend, Hal Hingham, who would loan him money. Hal had moved to Tucson to spend time working on his writing, but was bored there now. After he got the money, Sal took off with Dean and Marylou. They picked up a hitchhiker on their way to San Francisco and when they got there Dean ditched Marylou and Sal to go find Camille. Marylou stayed with Dean for a couple of days before going off with a nightclub owner. Sal thought Marylou was a whore for this. He wandered around the city, deliriously hungry, until Dean finally found him and took him to stay with Camille and him. Sal “goofed around” with Dean for a while, going out in San Francisco and seeing different jazz acts, but soon felt like it was time for him to go home. The night before he left, he went out with Dean and Marylou.
After some time at home, Sal tried to settle down in Denver with a job, but became restless. A rich girl he knew gave him a hundred dollar bill and told him to take a trip to San Francisco, so he did and went straight to Dean. Dean welcomed Sal into his home, but Camille became frustrated at Dean returning to his old ways with friends and thought Dean would leave her again. Dean told Sal about how he had stalked Marylou for a while and, after smoking too much uncured marijuana, barged into Marylou’s apartment with a gun, asking her to shoot him. Camille and Dean got into a big fight and Camille kicked him out of the house. Seeing what a sorry state Dean was in, Sal suggested they travel to New York and then San Francisco. Before leaving they went around San Francisco with some friends, including Galatea, who scolded Dean for leaving Camille and going off on the road so that Camille had to look after their children. Sal and Dean had a crazy night out on the town, drinking and going to see jazz performances, and then hit the road the next day. They hitched a ride with “a tall, thin fag” who propositioned Dean and Sal in a hotel room to no avail. Once they arrived in Denver, Dean and Sal got into a fight when Dean made a comment about Sal getting older. They quickly made up, though, and went to stay with Frankie, a woman Sal knew from when he lived in Denver alone. Frankie lived alone with her children, including a thirteen year-old daughter named Janet, who Dean was infatuated with. Dean and Sal had a good time in Denver, going out drinking, and Dean stole several cars. They went to the Denver travel bureau and found a Cadillac that needed to be driven to its owner in Chicago, so they agreed to drive it, taking along two college-aged Irish men as passengers. Dean sped so fast that he broke the car’s speedometer and at one point slid in some mud, getting the car stuck in a ditch. Dean decided to stop at his friend Ed Wall’s ranch on the way to Chicago. Dean drove dangerously all the way to Chicago, speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. At one point, he rear-ended a car. When Sal and Dean got to Chicago, they drove around and had a good night listening to some jazz performances. They returned the Cadillac to its owner and got on a bus to Detroit, where they found a man who agreed to drive them to New York. Back in New York, it wasn’t long before Dean met a woman named Inez, divorced Camille, and married Inez. A few months after this, Camille gave birth to Dean’s second child, and a few months later Inez gave birth, as well.
When spring came, Sal decided that he needed to leave New York. He hung out with Dean some more before leaving him behind in New York with Inez, and then went west to Denver, where he reconnected with some old friends. He planned to drive south to Mexico, but just as he was planning to leave with Stan Shephard, he learned that Dean was on his way to Denver. Dean had “gone mad again” and he, Sal, and a big group of their old friends (including Ed and Galatea) went out partying in Denver. Then, Dean, Sal, and Stan decided to drive to Mexico. As Stan was leaving his house, his grandfather begged him not to leave, and Sal realized that Stan was fleeing his grandfather. They drove south and shared stories until they finally reached the border and crossed into Mexico at three in the morning. The group exchanged their money for pesos, bought some beer and cigarettes, and were extremely excited to be in this different country. At a gas station, they met someone named Victor, who promised to get them marijuana and prostitutes. They went to Victor’s house, where they smoked a gigantic joint of marijuana and spent over 300 pesos at a brothel, sleeping with a bunch of different women. They got back on the road and drove through a dense jungle toward Mexico City. They got through the jungle and passed by a community of “mountain Indians,” whom Dean admired and pondered for their primitiveness. They finally arrived in Mexico City and had a great time, until Sal got feverishly ill. He became delirious and came to just as Dean was telling him that he was leaving to go back to New York.
After he recovered, Sal went back to New York, where he met and fell in love with a girl named Laura. Dean had married Inez but then gone back to live with Camille in San Francisco. Sal and Laura planned to go to San Francisco, so Sal wrote Dean to tell him this. Dean then showed up unexpectedly in New York. Dean tried to convince Inez to join him in San Francisco, where he would split his time between Camille and her, but she refused. The night Dean was leaving to go back west, Sal and Laura were going to a concert with Remi Boncoeur, who happened to be in town. Dean asked for a ride to the train station, but Remi refused to let Dean in the car, so Sal left Dean behind, the last time he saw him. Sal says that whenever the sun goes down, he thinks of America and its sprawling lands, and especially of Dean Moriarty.